“Fifteen years ago Apple was a beleaguered tech company. Today, it is a transformative leader across multiple industries (computers, smart phones, music, movies, wearable technology),” said Robert Kehrer, senior product manager for FamilySearch.org’s search experience. He believes that FamilySearch, a nonprofit and a world leader in the growing and expanding family history industry, is also undergoing a fundamental transformation. He knows because as a former manager at Apple for most of the last decade, he participated in the change there and clearly sees the similarities. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Kehrer following an industry presentation he made to hundreds of family history enthusiasts.
Kehrer explained that FamilySearch is seeking to change the very landscape of genealogy. “[FamilySearch] is a different organization today—focused on the customer and quickly delivering value,” said Kehrer. “Companies that change the fastest to meet customer needs today are the most effective.”
He compared FamilySearch.org’s transformation to a house that has undergone extensive renovation from its roof to its foundation. “The only thing that has changed with FamilySearch.org is, quite frankly, everything. It has been completely reinvented over the last few years,” Kehrer said. “It boggles your mind to think that it’s a free service.”
He believes FamilySearch.org has one of the best search-engine experiences anywhere, hands down, including a robust and very accurate hinting feature that pulls information from six billion records on the site and matches it to a patron’s personal data. The collaboration-based FamilySearch Family Tree, he believes, is the largest and best-sourced family tree of its kind on the Internet. Users add 250,000 new sources and 25,000 new names a day.
Kehrer explained there are two integrated mobile apps, a Memories feature (a simple tool for attaching sources to ancestor profiles), incredible help systems, a phenomenal torrent of new records daily, emerging partnerships, and a totally new indexing experience. And that’s just getting him started.
He explained the current focus of much of the product development is focused on the following customer needs:
- More records—faster
- The ability to preserve and share personal family records online
- More mobile-focused resources (ability to do more on cell phones and tablets)
- More accurate and full-featured search experiences
- Online sources gathered easily and completely at a patron’s fingertips
- A genealogically sound FamilySearch Family Tree
- Integrated resources with FamilySearch partners and industry leaders
Since 2013, FamilySearch.org has seen a 234 percent increase in patrons who are members of the Church and a whopping 1,035 percent increase from the general public. Kehrer believes these increases are due to improved patron experiences. Record collections on the website have nearly doubled since 2012 (from 1,033 to 2,019), and searchable indexed names have grown from 750 million in 2010 to 5.2 billion today.
FamilySearch is expanding its 293 digital camera teams worldwide, and the effort to convert the microfilm in the Granite Mountain Records Vault to digital images is forging ahead, which adds new content online at an impressive rate.
FamilySearch’s new indexing program—a community-based initiative to engage online volunteers to make the deluge of digital record images easily searchable online by name and other variables—is currently being rolled out in waves. Since it is web-based, the biggest selling point is that it will run on all Internet-enabled devices tablet-sized and larger. It is also collaborative, meaning volunteers and organizations can create their own groups to tackle projects of interest, track their progress, and communicate with each other. And the new interface enables users to structure the way they view images and enter data according to personal preferences.
Kehrer is also excited about automated indexing, a technology FamilySearch is developing that scours ASCI-type (typeset) historical records and intuitively index them by pulling researchable data out of documents. This technology will vastly increase the publication of indexed collections and free online volunteers to index older, handwritten records. FamilySearch publishes over 250 million new records each year.
As a product manager, Kehrer’s primary responsibility is FamilySearch.org’s search systems. A new addition to the search experience is FamilySearch’s evolving hinting feature—a service that automatically scours the rapidly growing body of historical records for the ancestors you have in FamilySearch Family Tree and presents their records to you. “It is absolutely astounding how effective and accurate this [hinting] tool is,” said Kehrer. “Think about it. It is working for you when you’re not. It’s finding your ancestors in records that the average person might have never considered. And it’s a piece of cake to add them to your family tree.”
The location-specific research pages, accessed when you click an area in the world map in Records Search, bring together location-relevant content from across the FamilySearch.org site (digital image collections, indexed records, and catalog, wiki, and help content). And when you look at an image of a historical document, it now shows the indexed data at the bottom of the same screen. “Seeing the image and the indexed results together on the same screen significantly enhances user efficiency,” said Kehrer.
When asked what is coming around the corner, Kehrer said to expect more impressive tools and more functionality for the FamilySearch mobile apps, Memories feature, online catalog, and partner initiatives. Advancements in search capability will be applied to all these applications. Microfilm images and indices will be accessible directly from the FamilySearch catalog and will enable users to browse quickly through digital images or search the film’s indexed records.
Try the enhanced search experience at FamilySearch.org.